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A closer look: 'Let There Be Light'

On Friday afternoon, Shasti O'Leary Soudant's new installation "Let There Be Light" opened in the Burchfield Penney Art Center's innovative Useum space. She was kind enough to give me a little tour of the exhibition, which is fueled by her fascination with light. The kid-friendly show runs through Sept. 29.

--Colin Dabkowski

Remembering Norma Kassirer (1924-2013)

There will be a gathering of family, friends, and fellow artists and writers this morning at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 695 Elmwood Avenue in  Buffalo, to celebrate the life of the late Norma Kassirer.  

Ms. Kassirer, the Buffalo-based writer and artist whose oeuvre ranged from children's fiction to experimental prose and poetry, and from collage pieces and hand-made artist's books to painted murals, died unexpectedly on February 17th following an evening at the movies with friends.  She was 89.

Only a handful of individuals  have had as generous and beneficent an influence on the Buffalo area arts community as Kassirer,  about whom it can fairly be said that she was a progressive and forward-thinking mentor to no less than three generations of Buffalo writers, and her gentle wisdom, wit and grace made her one the most quietly admired and beloved figures on the entire Buffalo arts scene.

At a  time when generational distinctions are rigidly drawn across the culture at large, Norma was no less admired by--and no less admiring of--younger Buffalo writers and artists in their twenties and thirties than she was by writers of her own generation, and she remained an active and supportive voice, a vital presence and--with the warm twinkle of her eyes and sweet and forgiving  cackle of her laughter--a constant inspiration right up until the very end.

I had the good fortune of knowing Norma and her late husband Earle from virtually the moment I set foot in the early Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, at first on Essex Street and later at 700 Main Street.  When my friend Annie Pluto and I agreed to co-curate the "Fiction Diction" reading series in the early 1980's, Norma was one of our strongest supporters and a reliable source of curatorial counsel. 

The early Hallwalls may be most strongly associated with "The Pictures Generation" of media and conceptual art influenced baby-boomers working in a spectacle-seeking confabulation of narrative and non-narrative forms, but the murals on the ceiling of the original location of Hallwalls on Essex Street were painted by this remarkable fifty-something year-old woman--a well-known and widely respected children's author who had already penned the classics "Magic Elizabeth" (1966) and "The Doll Snatchers" (1969), but was now writing innovative fiction and prose poems that put her in closer proximity to John Ashbery than Judy Blume on the aesthetic register.

Later, I came to know the direction her writing was headed in at the time, in her under-appreciated collection  "The Hidden Wife and Other Stories" published by Michael Boughn's Shuffleoff Press in 1991, in which the precision of Norma's mastery of the rhythms of  idiomatic speech combined with a narrative logic of minimalism to create a kind of  feverish and dreamlike antecedent to what a decade so later would come to be more popularly known as "flash fiction."

In Norma's final full length book, the extraordinary novel "Katzenjammered" published by BlazeVox Books in 2011, the arc of her life's work became more clearly evident.  Here was a novel about the darkest of family secrets--suicide-- and the most gruesome of human experiences--the horrors of war --as narrated by a precocious nine year old protagonist named Martha, who Kassirer freely admitted was a stand-in for her younger self, telling the story her beloved father (also a writer, Norma's entire family, up to the current generation, are people of the word), and his inability to adjust to civilian life after his experience in the trenches of World War One.

One of Norma's greatest gifts as a writer was her ability to shift seamlessly from past to present tense so subtly that the reader barely noticed the transition.  In "Katzenjammered," she used this technique to magnificent effect, permitting her nine year narrator to discover but only partially comprehend the anguish of her father's letters that she discovers, unbeknownst to her mother and extended family who are attempting to raise her in as normal and middle-class an environment as was possible in Great Depression/Prohibition Era America.  Yet unmistakably, in every sentence, in every paragraph nine-year old Martha narrates, you can hear--you can almost visualize--the mature Kassirer looking over the girl's shoulder, her lips silently mouthing her syllables until the two voices are merged, are one.

Norma was that kind of writer: someone whose work packed an emotional wallop without fully pulling back the veil of uncertainty and artfulness.  It was a privilege to know her and to know her work.  She will not soon be forgotten in this community, either in her presence or in her spirit.

--R.D. Pohl
  

Sold-out Rihanna show at First Niagara Center runs late

**Update: Jeff Miers' review: Rihanna bumps and grinds in Buffalo

Rihanna kicked off her "Diamonds Tour 2013" at First Niagara Center on Friday evening. The singer and her entourage were running behind schedule. Rihanna took the stage a little after 10 p.m., making it impossible for a review of the show to be filed by deadline. A full review of the concert will run in Sunday's Buffalo News.

The packed house didn't seem to mind the wait. Following an opening set from rising hip-hop star A$ap Rocky, Rihanna, backed by a four-piece band, 8 dancers, and a pair of harmony vocalists, opened with "Phresh Out the Runway" and was greeted by a deafening roar.

The show, presented in three acts, with attendent costume and set changes, concentrated on songs from the star's 2012 album "Unapologetic". 

- Jeff Miers, News Pop Music Critic

Live chat at noon: Miers on Music with The News' pop music critic

Start your weekend with GustoTV now playing on Thursdays

The first installment of our new GustoTV format includes a rundown of what's new in movies, music, theater, art and food followed by News Arts Critic Colin Dabkowski's interview with Drew McCabe, director of "Cannibal: The Musical." Finally, News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers shared area fans' opinions of pop star Rihanna, who opens her tour Friday in Buffalo.

Replay Critics' Corner with Simon & Miers

Thursday Theater Roundup

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Tod Benzin and Pamela Rose Mangus in Donna Hoke's new play "Seeds," running through Marc 24 in the Road Less Traveled Theatre. Photo by Charles Lewis / The Buffalo News.

"Seeds," through March 24 in Road Less Traveled Theatre. ★★★★

From the review: "Simply put, the instructional, observant and insightful “Seeds” is Hoke’s best work to date..." --Ted Hadley

Tim Lewis and Cassandra Angerosa star in Lancaster Opera House’s production of “Oklahoma!” ( Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News)

"Oklahoma!" through March 17 in the Lancaster Opera House. ★★★

From the review: "Weak productions of 'Oklahoma!' tend to amplify all its simplistic plot turns and schlocky lyrics. Smart ones such as this highlight the irresistible spirit of American optimism it embodies and all the innovations of Agnes De Mille’s choreography and staging it introduced to musical theater." --Colin Dabkowski

"First Lady Suite," through March 16 in an American Repertory Theatre Production at The Church of The Ascension. ★★★½

From the review: "[Michael John LaChiusa's] score flows freely from Gershwin to Sondheim to Philip Glass to even William Finn, relying on their proven textures while refusing to mimic them. It’s quite a feat, especially considering that it’s played –- masterfully, easily, it would sound –- on an electric keyboard by music director Michael Hake, whose passion for musicianship imbues every sound we hear." --Ben Siegel

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Patrick Moltane (standing) and Mark Donahue star in Torn Space Theater's production of Sam Shepard's play "Buried Child."

"Buried Child," through March 16 at Torn Space Theater. ★★★½

From the review: "Shepard’s theories are once again aided by his usual themes: desperation, isolation, violence, temper, deceit. Add incest, murder and the always present Shepard staple, menace, and you have the makings for an uncomfortable, albeit intriguing, night at the theater, one interminable at times, riveting at others." --Ted Hadley

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Beth Donohue and Wendy Hall in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's production of "Dancing at Lughnasa."

"Dancing at Lughnasa," through March 10 in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's Andrews Theatre. ★★★

From the review: "...You enter and exit the picture fluidly, never sure of whose emotions you’re responding to. In the end, you feel awoken from a dream, in the hazy déjà vu of it all. How exquisite this can be." --Ben Siegel

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Michele Marie Roberts, Jessica Ferraday, Guy Balotine and Josie DiVincenzo star in "Noises Off" in the Kavinoky Theatre.

"Noises Off," through March 10 in Kavinoky Theatre.  ★★★★

From the review: "The Kavinoky’s current production of Michael Frayn’s classic modern farce “Noises Off” is perhaps not absent of flaws. That would be absurd. I dare you to find anything wrong with it, though, or to not take pure joy in everything it offers." --Ben Siegel

A winning Battle

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Kathleen Battle might not be much for interviews but she shows an endearing sisterly attitude toward up-and-coming singers. Teenage soprano Emily Helenbrook sent in this picture of herself with the celebrated diva, who is singing spirituals on Friday night with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The picture was taken at a reception following Kathleen Battle's 2005 recital at UB's Center for the Arts.

Emily was 10. She writes: "She was the first singer I ever heard in concert, and she encouraged me to pursue music and my voice. She was so kind and her warmth, generosity, and sincere encouragement gave me the inspiration to pursue music as a career.  I followed her advice, and my excitement and honor to be on the same season with the BPO as her is unparalleled."

Kathleen Battle is singing at 8 p.m. Friday at Kleinhans Music Hall. Emily Helenbrook sang there in December during the Classical Christmas Concert with the BPO and Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Here is a picture of that.

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Kathleen Battle's enthusiasm and kindness paid off!

For info on BPO events, call 885-5000.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman


A closer look: 'Strip Appeal' at UB Anderson Gallery

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For too many years, the Central Park Plaza sat vacant and abandoned on the East Side, its shattered windows and crumbling bricks signals of the city’s larger misfortunes. But before crews finally knocked down its final building and left behind a lonely, empty lot, University at Buffalo architecture professors Stephanie Davidson and Georg Rafailidis dreamed up a fantastic new plan for the long-neglected strip mall.

This close-up rendering of the retooled plaza, which is part of the UB Anderson Gallery’s imaginative and eye-opening exhibition “Strip Appeal: Reinventing the Strip Mall,” shows what an artist’s eye is capable of when applied to the city’s pressing problems of blight and decline. In Davidson and Rafailidis’ alternate universe, the plaza’s raw materials provide raw material for new construction projects, which in turn create bustling new center of urban activity where the derelict strip mall once stood. The exhibition argues convincingly that this Quixotic vision need not die a quiet death on a gallery wall –- it could actually become a reality.

Stephanie Davidson and Georg Rafailidis: “Strip Appeal: Reinventing the Strip Mall,” through March 17 in the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, 1 Martha Jackson Place.

-–Colin Dabkowski

Yale awards nine writers its inaugural Windham Campbell Literature Prizes

Yale University announced the inaugural set of winners of its Windham Campbell Literature Prizes Monday morning at a press conference in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the university.  Nine writers--three fiction writers, three playwrights, and three nonfiction writers--were awarded $150,000 each by an anonymous panel of distinguished judges drawn from across the literary arts with the objective of rewarding excellence in established and emergent English-language literature.

The nine prizes--among the most lucrative in the English-speaking literary world--were established this year by Yale with a bequest from the estate of novelist and memoirist Donald Windham, who died at age 89 in 2010, and his partner Sandy M. Campbell, an actor and writer, who died in 1988.  As with the annual MacArthur Foundation Fellowships in the arts, sciences, and humanities, the nomination process for the Windham Campbell prizes is confidential, and the recipients of the awards have no prior knowledge that they are under consideration for the honor.

“We hope to make this a truly global writer’s prize,” said Michael Kelleher, the Windham Campbell Prizes  Program Director. “Fifty-nine writers from around the globe were nominated, including from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, Trinidad & Tobago, South Africa, the U.S., and the U.K.”

Prior to joining the staff of Yale University last April, Kelleher was Artistic Director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, where for the previous fourteen years, he was the driving force behind organizing Just Buffalo's highly successful BABEL Series lectures featuring international authors and the popular BIG NIGHT Series of readings, performances, and multi-media events.

This inaugural year's winners, which were announced by Yale President-elect Peter Salovey at the press conference, range from 33 to 87 years of age, and span from revered figures in American fiction to relatively unknown writers whose published work shows extraordinary promise for the future.  “Those we recognize this year are artists of the first order, and it is truly exciting to provide these authors with the means to develop their work in ways that will benefit all of us who love to read. We are all indebted to Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell for having created this legacy,” said Salovey. 

The winners in fiction include:

--Novelist James Salter, the oldest of the awardees and perhaps the best known, for his 1956 Korean War U.S. Air Force pilot novel "The Hunters" and a string of subsequent novels including "A Sport and a Pastime" (1967),  "Light Years" (1975),  and "Solo Faces" (1979), as well as the PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning story collection "Dusk and Other Stories (1989).  You can read The Paris Review's  Summer of 1993 (Issue No. 127) interview with James Salter (The Art of Fiction No. 133) at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1930/the-art-of-fiction-no-133-james-salter.

--English novelist, writer, and conceptual artist Tom McCarthy, author of “Remainder” (Metronome Press, 2005), a debut novel which dealt with questions of trauma and repetition, “Men in Space” (Alma Books, 2007), set in Central Europe during the collapse of communism, and “C” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) , a novel set in the early 20th century that explores the relationship between melancholia, violence and the emergent radio technology of the era.  The latter novel was a finalist for the Booker Prize.  McCarthy visited Buffalo this past November to read in the University at Buffalo English Department's Exhibit X Fiction Series at Hallwalls.

--South African writer Zoë Wicomb, author of  the apartheid era collection of stories "You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town" (1987), and the post-apartheid novels "David" (2000) and "Playing in the Light" (2006).  An Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland much of her critical writing focuses on Postcolonial theory and South Africa writing and culture. 

The winners in drama were: 

--Stephen Adly Guirgis, the American playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor who serves as co-artistic director of New York City's LAByrinth Theater Company.  Guirgis' plays, including "The Motherf**ker with the Hat," "Jesus Hopped the A Train," "Our Lady of 121st Street," "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," "In Arabia We'd All Be Kings,"  "The Little Flower of East Orange," and "Den of Thieves" have been performed throughout the United States and on five continents. Buffalo's Road Less Traveled Productions staged an enormously successful run of Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" in the spring of 2011, with the playwright himself along with actor Stephen McKinley Henderson attending RTLP's Spring Gala as guests of honor.

--Tarell Alvin McCraney is an award-winning American playwright best known for his trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays: "The Brothers Size,"  "In The Red and Brown Water," and "Marcus; Or The Secret Sweet."  They have been performed at McCarter Theater in Princeton, The Public Theater in New York, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, at a trio of theaters in the Bay Area: Marin Theatre Company, ACT, and Magic Theatre, as well as the Young Vic in London (Olivier Award nomination) and around the world. Other plays include "The Breach" (Southern Rep, Seattle Rep), "Wig Out!" (Sundance Theatre Institute, Royal Court, and Vineyard Theatre - GLAAD Award for Outstanding Play), and "American Trade" (Royal Shakespeare Company/Hampstead Theatre).

--Naomi Wallace is a playwright, poet, and screenwriter from Prospect, Kentucky whose plays include "In the Heart of America," "Slaughter City," " One Flea Spare," "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek,"  "The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, " and a stage adaptation of William Wharton's novel "Birdy" that was produced on the West End in London. In 2009, One Flea Spare was incorporated into the permanent répertoire of the French National Theater, the Comédie-Française.   Among the awards her plays have received are the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award, Obie Award ("One Flea Spare") and the 2012 Horton-Foote Award for most promising new American play. She is previous a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts development grant.

The 2013 Windham Campbell awardees in nonfiction were:

--American essayist, critic, and literary biographer Adina Hoffman, the author of "House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood" (2000) and her 2009 life and times of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century."  She is also the author, with Peter Cole, of "Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza," which was awarded the American Library Association’s Brody Medal for the best Jewish book of 2011.  Hoffman has been a visiting professor at Wesleyan, Middlebury, and NYU, as well as the Franke Fellow at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center. 

--Jeremy Scahill is National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (2007). He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere across the globe. Journal. Scahill’s work has sparked several Congressional investigations and won some of journalism’s highest honors. He was twice awarded the prestigious George Polk Award, in 1998 for foreign reporting and in 2008 for his book Blackwater. Scahill is a producer and writer of the film "Dirty Wars," which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. His latest book is "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield," published by Nation Books.

--Jonny Steinberg is a South African writer, scholar and author of a number of books about everyday life in South Africa’s transition to democracy. Two of these books, "Midlands" (2002), about the murder of a white South African farmer, and "The Number" (2004), a biography of a prison gangster, won South Africa’s premier nonfiction award, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize. Steinberg’s other books include "Three-Letter Plague," which chronicles a young man’s journey through South Africa’s AIDS pandemic and was a Washington Post Book of the Year,  and "Thin Blue" (2008), an exploration of the unwritten rules of engagement between South African civilians and police.  His most recent book "Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York" (2011) was about the Liberian civil war and its aftermath in an exile community in New York City.  A forthcoming book about the journey of Somali boy across the length of the African continent will be published in 2014.  Steinberg has a doctorate in political theory from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and is currently a lecturer in African Studies. He is also a columnist for the Sunday Times in South Africa. A collection of his columns, "Notes From a Fractured Country," was published in 2007.

The sole obligation of the Windham Campbell Prize winners is to accept their awards in person at a ceremony scheduled for September 10th in Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  A literary arts festival involving several of the awardees of the Windham Campbell Prizes is scheduled for September 10-13 on the Yale University campus and in the greater New Haven community.

--R.D. Pohl

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